From Chicago, help for the homeland

Marcos Reyes at a construction site in Chicago.
Marcos Reyes at a construction site in Chicago.
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On a busy street lined with blackened snow, the “Latino Express” school bus rumbles past. Here, across from a freight yard, and wedged between two used-car lots, is a modest two-story building braced against Chicago’s winter wind. It is a small monument to immigrant industry and ambition.

Within the Zacatecan Cultural Center — newly converted from the Polka Hall of Fame that stood here when the neighborhood was filled with Polish migrants — the board works late into the night on its latest plans.

They are migrants from the central Mexican state of Zacatecas who can tell harrying tales of swimming across the river from Mexico as teen-agers, enduring days in cramped train cars arranged by the middle men, or “coyotes,” working illegally in factories and ranches, and being caught by U.S. authorities and shipped back across the border — only to begin the whole process again.

But the leaders of the Illinois Federation of Zacatecanos have moved on. Today they are well-established business owners and middle-class workers with children heading off to college. In these sessions they put together activities — dances, raffles and other events for which there is a seemingly endless sale of tickets. Even as the board meets, several federation members are in the hall next door pounding away on a catwalk for an upcoming fashion show.

One of their goals as a federation, which includes 20 “hometown clubs” with thousands of members, is to celebrate their cultural and pass it on to their children, despite being 1,800 miles from their desert homeland. Another goal is to raise the standard of living in Zacatecas so others won’t be forced to make the perilous journey to the north as they have.

“We do not promote immigration,” federation president Rosalva Ruiz says emphatically. “Our goal is to generate jobs in (Zacatecas) so people won’t have to come here. If we had had such opportunities, we would never have come.”

There are an estimated 8 million Mexican-born people living in the United States, both documented and undocumented. Last year alone, they sent $6 billion to $8 billion back to Mexico, mainly for direct support of their families.

Like the members of the Illinois Federation of Zacatecanos, thousands of these migrants are organized into clubs and federations that are starting to pool much of the money they send home for investment in major projects — building new roads in villages, improving education and providing jobs.

Together with a young governor in Zacatecas — Ricardo Monreal Avila — this group is spearheading a “three-for-one” investment program. Under the program, for every $1 raised by a migrant club for a given project, the federal, state and municipal governments in Mexico throw in $3.

“Individual families sending money back to Mexico has been going on for the whole century, and it didn’t really do anything,” said Marcos Reyes, a Chicago engineer who manages projects proposed by the clubs in his federation. “The three-for-one program gets people more involved, and hopefully will wake up the entrepreneurial spirit in Mexico.”

Last year, the Arroyo Seco hometown club raised money for a rodeo complex back in Arroyo Seco, Mexico, that will create a host of long-term jobs. Reyes’ own Estancia de Animas hometown club has held raffles and dances to raise a quarter of the $71,000 needed to renovate the town plaza and convert an old auditorium into a library. The plaza project alone generated at least 15 short-term jobs, he says.

Still more important, Reyes says, are the many projects that provide basic infrastructure — for drinking water, electricity and roads in the poorest towns in remote parts of Zacatecas.

In total, about $6.4 million was invested last year in the state through the three-for-one program.

Shedding suspicion
The three-for-one idea took some time to catch on, in part because of suspicions on both sides of the border. From the point of view of Mexicans in America, working with Mexican government officials was a sure-fire way to lose their money in the abyss of corruption that has long plagued the country. It’s taken younger, better educated officials on the local level in Mexico to push through reforms.

And it helps, says board member Elena Duran, that the overseas Mexicans are involved in the projects from start to finish. “Our funding through three-for-one helps make the government more accountable. If we raise money through raffles and dances for a road ... we make sure the road gets built.”

Indeed, nearly everyone on the board of the federation — and most of the club members — visit their hometowns at least once a year. After spotting poor construction quality on past projects, they mandated that a portion of every investment be earmarked for quality-control inspectors. Locals have also been employed as watchdogs for project finances.

The suspicion was mutual. “Historically, say 20 years ago, Mexicans didn’t treat the Braceros (Mexican guest workers the United States) well,” says Chicago-based Mexican Consul General Carlos M. Sada. “They were seen as people who left and didn’t want anything to do with Mexico. But how migrants are viewed is starting to turn around.”

These days, at least in Zacatecas, returning Mexicans are greeted with much fanfare. “In every town there were bands playing when we arrived,” recalls Miss Zacatecas Illinois, 18-year-old Erika Chavez, who traveled to Zacatecas last year with a group of Mexican “queens” crowned in other American states. “The towns loved it. It was just amazing.”

The interest extends beyond the ceremonial. When the Illinois Zacatecas Federation decided to buy a building to house their more ambitious activities, the government of Zacatecas sprang for half of the $220,000, recognizing the long-term benefits.

Fox does the math
Mexico’s newly-elected president, Vicente Fox, is trying to harness the potential of Mexico’s migrants abroad like never before.

During his campaign, he visited major Mexican-American communities to solicit their support — Mexicans have the right to vote in Mexico even if they are naturalized American citizens — and visited the border to make the point that migrants are welcome. “He made the point that Mexicans never forget Mexico,” says General Consul Sada.

Since his inauguration, Fox has established an office of migrant affairs and appointed a special ambassador to Mexicans in the United States, Juan Hernandez. His administration is studying ways to put in place a three-for-one investment program, or something modeled on it, nationwide.

His goal: to raise the standard of living in Mexico so that people will not be compelled to leave. In parallel, he is pressing for an open border with the United States that would allow free and legal travel in both directions.

“Vicente Fox really gets it about Mexicans in the United States being important to Mexico,” says Susan Gzesh, director of the Chicago-based Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network. “In his creation of new positions in government and his transition team, attention has really been focused on it.”

Clearly, Fox has done the math.